"I'M NOT SO SURE I BELIEVE IN WHITE PRIVILEGE,” one of my son’s white friends told to me recently, as though the concept were an article of faith, like Santa Claus, rather than a thing that just is. His uncertainty, he admitted, came from thinking about privilege in terms of materialism: as he understood it, white privilege meant that all white people were somehow better off than all people of color because of their skin, and clearly that’s not true. I suggested that the reason he doesn’t necessarily ‘believe’ in white privilege is because it’s not something he ever has to think about. I explained that there are many basic aspects of life that my black son must negotiate that he never will, and that, as they get older and become young men, he will need to be cognizant of when he is with my son.
His father will never need to sit him down and teach him how to submit before figures of authority even as feelings of injustice and indignation roil within. No overzealous store security officer will ever dog him through the aisles just waiting for an opportunity to pounce. No policeman is likely to pull him from a group of friends just hanging out under the assumption that he must be trouble. He will never have to think twice about running across the street for a bus lest someone cry out ‘thief’. These daily, subtle indignities will never touch him. He just lives his life. And that’s the privilege he gets to enjoy. “I never thought of it that way,” he said.
This summer an anonymous white parent took umbrage with the diversity curriculum at Bank Street School for Children, running to the tabloids complaining that their privileged white child was made to feel like a racist. Worse, this anonymous parent directed their ire at a magnificent young educator whose career, in addition to educating our children, has been dedicated to educating herself in order to best serve our school’s community and to position Bank Street as a thought-leader in this area. Anshu Wahi was a gift to Bank Street. She announced her departure early last school year and it is the loss of every child there. This anonymous parent should know that the school’s Kids of Color program was in place long before Anshu arrived and that a similar curriculum is taught at many of the city’s independent schools. This anonymous parent’s action is harmful not only to Anshu and to Bank Street, but to their own child: it’s based on a simplistic and ill-informed reading of the curriculum.
At Bank Street School for Children, all students are taught empathy at a very early age: they are taught to be upstanders – those that stand up for justice – and not bystanders. White children are taught the concept of white privilege so that they are not kept in the dark, so that they can be empathetic to their friends of color and that hopefully with awareness they will, through their worldview and actions, grow up to be part of the solution.
While all this was going on, I happened to be reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and would recommend it to any white person seeking an inside view of the black American experience. Though the book is more than a half-century old it’s shockingly resonant. In a letter to his nephew, Baldwin describes some in white society as “these innocent and well-meaning people” who cannot bear the thought that injustice exists on their watch and who insist that any assertions are just wrong. ”I hear the chorus of the innocents screaming ‘No! This is not true! How bitteryou are!’” Today, such people could no longer be called innocent, even ironically. Today, they are worse: willfully ignorant, and given all that we know and all that we see regularly about how people of color are treated in this country, there’s no excuse for it.
Recently, Mayor Bill DeBlasio told Brian Lehrer on WNYC “Do not believe what you read in The New York Post is a good rule of thumb.” One should consider the source of these stories about Bank Street that appeared in its pages this summer, and the intent of its not-so-impartial reporter Paul Sperry (visit his Twitter account for a taste of his vitriol).
For those sincerely interested in learning about Bank Street’s diversity curriculum and its dedication to social justice, a good first step would be to speak to the school’s new Director of Diversity and Equity, or for that matter, any parent of a child of color. By speaking with these people, and not the Post – no friend of progressive ideals – you may discover that learning about the lives of others is a privilege in itself.